I was listening to Talk of the Nation this afternoon and the topic was the privatization of prisons. I didn’t hear the whole program, but what fascinated me was how corporations entering this venture pull profits. For example, if an inmate requires medical assistance (dispensing medication, etc.), they’re charged a fee – around $12 a day. If they can’t pay it, they’re billed for it and expected to recompense the prison after their release. In a state operated prison this doesn’t happen; the burden falls on the taxpayer. I’m sure an argument for a private prison system is thought out and coming from a sincere place (at least in regards to the general population and not corporations), but it seems dangerous. Corporations are insane. The documentary The Corporations is a prime example: by implementing psychoanalytic techniques, the documentary finds a corporation embodies all the traits inherent in a psychopathic personality – at least those found in the DSM-IV.

Here’s the criteria necessary (from the DSM-IV via Wikipedia): failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest; deceitfulness, as indicated by repeatedly lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure; impulsivity or failure to plan ahead; irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults; reckless disregard for safety of self or others; consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations; lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another; promiscuity; having shallow or seemingly nonexistent feelings.

For some reason I don’t want anybody exhibiting these tendencies controlling anybody’s liberties – regardless of their criminal status. It seems open to abuse; a chance to create debt and maximize profits at the public’s expense. Considering the questionable motivation behind some incarcerations (drug use being a prime example), what to stop these companies – with large legislative influence – from lobbying our rights away for the sake of profit? I know my example is possibly far-fetched, yet look at the response from BP and Halliburton regarding the Gulf leak over the last few weeks. Each side blames the other – potentially out of any public crucifixion. These same companies handling the prisons also have considerable influence in media operations, filtering content as necessary. This is one of Noam Chomsky’s media filters: The Advertising License of Do-Business, indicating the powerful censorship various companies hold over media outlets. If they want a story buried of spun a certain way, they threaten to pull monetary support. It’s what Dr. Laura was complaining about but from a different perspective.

Enter Robocop – an ultra-violent film about a privatized police force whose parent company creates a cyborg police officer using the corpse of a dead cop (Peter Weller). In a futuristic Detroit (now the past), OCP (Omni Consumer Products) runs the police department after crime rises and the city can’t handle the financial burden. Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) even states at one point, “we are the military,” in regards to the company’s influence; they basically operate the military, the police, prisons, and anything else you can think of. In essence, OCP takes non-profit, government duties and privatizes them – all for a profit.

Detroit’s Metro West precinct is filled with violence, like some Afghanistan town. The police wear visible vests everywhere – similar to riot gear – and the cops exhibit a “shoot first, ask questions later,” policy. Granted, the criminals in Robocop aren’t your everyday felons; they’re seasoned killers, led by the incredible Clarence Boddicker (Curtwood Smith: Red from That ‘70s Show) – a vicious drug dealer and all around bad guy whose also in cahoots with OCP vice president Jones. Boddicker’s gang ballistically butchers Murphy (Weller) on his first day, ushering his lifeless corpse into OCP’s top secret Robocop program. Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) argues about Murphy’s involuntary participant, “He signed the form,” referring to his employment contract which presumably states even his corpse is corporate property. Assumedly his body is covered by corporate trade secret laws, since Murphy becomes Robocop: the ultimate trademarked law enforcement/military invention of the age.

Robocop’s introduction signals a change in law enforcement; people aren’t necessary to fight crime, only to be either subservient to authority or suffer strict consequences. Throughout the film we receive Robocop’s subjective view, displaying his directives – ranging from public service to interpreting crimes in action. The issue I take with this portrayal is the missing human factor in Robocop’s determinations. While he’s still part human and the on-screen incidents project actual crimes, Robocop’s programming is just that: programming. The human empathy necessary in determining a situation involving living people is gone; leaving instead a black or white representation of legality. Verhoeven’s film does explore Robocop’s human element, but the depictions of Robocop’s police actions in the first two acts show a right or wrong approach to crime, leaving very little open to objection or understanding. I’m not arguing against law and order, but I’m arguing against such a strict interpretation of American law, where laws aren’t static. If we followed documents like the Constitution to the letter and never changed anything, we’d never outlaw slavery and still oppress women. Then again, prohibition would’ve never happened. My point is that subjectivity is necessary when assessing a situation and a machine isn’t capable of this, regardless of the importance we place on technology.

Eventually Robocop becomes Murphy and appropriates his new vessel. The dominant personality wins (Murphy), indicating the primary importance of humanity over technology. Martin Heidegger argues in The Question Concerning Technology, “Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it. But we are delivered over to it in the worst possible way when we regard it as something neutral; for this conception of it, to which today we particularly like to do homage, makes us utterly blind to the essence of technology,” indicating our codependence on technology. To Heidegger, everything is technology and technology only serves human interests. Without humans, technology is useless since it’s a human invention solely for human use. Neil Postman believes (especially in his book Technolopy) that everything we use outside ourselves is technology, including words and language. Ultimately Murphy has to subsume Robocop, since human docility is Robocop’s goal – and this is a human endeavor, involving humans.

Looking at Murphy’s final realization that he’s Murphy and not Robocop is important to the film’s message – a message stressing the necessity of human involvement in humanity. While people run corporations, corporations are autonomous entities who have the rights of an individual. Since an 1886 court decision, corporations have had the rights and privileges afforded human citizens, yet they’re not. They’re a conglomerate of various individuals, working towards the demands of a business entity whose overall personality is insane. Non-profit resides outside a corporation’s vocabulary – an area necessary for the development of a civil society. Schools, police and fire departments, roads, prisons; all these are necessary to keep our civilization moving forward. They’re also utilities and institutions that need humans running them. If children learn about Adam Smith, Ayn Rand, and Coca-Cola’s mission statement before they learn the tenets of American democracy, we’re in trouble (we’re probably almost there if not there already).

Robocop’s sterility shines in the attempted rape scene, where the cybernetic police officer shoots a man in the groin through the victims dress and says without emotion to her, “Madame, you have suffered an emotional shock. I will notify a rape crisis center.” I’ve never been party to rape but I’m fairly certain this kind of response isn’t comforting. Instead of assure human contact, the victim receives automation, incapable of consoling – only protection through brute force. This isn’t effective in such cases. What does a cyborg say to a child whose parents just died in a terrible accident? What about somebody dying on the street? Empathy or sympathy is impossible when Robocop’s prime directives are, “Serve the public trust, protect the innocent, uphold the law.” This form of civil service isn’t compatible with humanity and Robocop argues this remarkably.

Robocop also pictures the complacency of the average American while this privatization of public works is underway. Advertisements for gas guzzling cars like the 6000 SUX (a precursor to the SUV) or the board game Nukem, whose ad argues, “Get them before they get you,” in regards to a family activity; television shows where voluptuous women surround a wormy man constantly saying, “I’d buy that for a dollar,” infect the airwaves. A television news show mimics Entertainment Tonight – even starring Entertainment Tonight and Extra host Leeza Gibbons – and ridicules the state of the American media, where ratings and entertainability outranks viable and accurate content. Like the Huxleyan title for Neil Postman’s seminal mid ‘80s book, we’re “amusing ourselves to death,” while our liberties and choices become those of powerful multi-nationals and the politicians they own. It’s tragically comedic how the predictions in Verhoeven’s film have played out over the last few years; if not in representation at least in content.

Another theme I wish to discuss is Robocop’s literal representation of the man/machine merger. Obviously our citizenry aren’t becoming part machine; a real life version of Darth Vader. Instead Robocop acts as a metaphor for humanity’s dependence on technology, especially contemporary technologies. Where would we be without our cellular phones, the internet, or electricity? Postman asserts technology has both positive and negatives and the inventors of a technology aren’t the best judges of its utilization. OCP’s use of Robocop isn’t necessarily in the public’s best interests, but it certainly serves OCP. Jones’ statement about Robocop’s predecessor, ED-209, “I had a guarantee military sale with ED 209. Renovation program. Spare parts for 25 years. Who cares if it worked or not?” regards another product, but the intention is the same. The power and financial incentives outweigh the public’s safety or pocketbook, an indicator of not only the psychopathic state of a corporation (ultimately those serving a corporation perform its will) but the incompatibility of public and private works. A corporation left unchecked when performing a public service will ultimately corrupt that service – ED-209 and Robocop are primary examples. By arguing for the continued usurpation of public funds for private gain, all the while discarding any responsibility for shoddy performance, OCP is exhibiting a nonchalant disregard for public safety. When given this responsibility, private enterprise will inevitably fail.

Robocop was a financial and commercial success (costing $13 million dollars and generating over $50 million domestically), spawning two sequels, an animated and live-action television series, a comic book, an action figure line, video games, and many other multimedia products. I’m wondering if Robocop’s concept was lost in this translation, taking an otherwise intelligent commentary on contemporary society and valid prediction of its inevitable outcome and watering it down for even further mass consumption. I doubt the Robocop cartoon features either the gratuitous violence or social critique of Verhoeven’s film. Instead these representations depict what the film satirizes – a world where mediocrity and corporate power rein supreme; a world where financially strong institutions dictate public police; a world where people are nothing more than consumers, towing a line acceptable to powerful institutions that work against the best interests of the population.

Here’s the trailer

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